Van Jones Talks ‘The Redemption Project’ A Powerful New Series

In the new CNN Original series The Redemption Project with Van Jones, the talk show host, CNN political contributor, and Award-winning social justice activist, guides viewers through an unprecedented journey, into the world of the restorative justice process— starting Sunday, April 28 at 9 p.m EP/PT. The 8 part series, follows the victim or surviving family members of a life-altering crime, as they journey to meet face-to-face with the offender in hopes of finding answers or some sense of healing following the unthinkable. For Jones, a long time advocate of criminal justice issues, the new series marks a renewed and explorative effort able to transform the life of the victim, the offender, and the viewer. Here he shares a few eye-opening findings.

On the inspiration behind the series…

 I’ve always been very curious and committed to showing some of the spiritual and moral genius that can sometimes happen behind bars. Working on criminal justice issues for almost 25 years—I have seen people who have really been transformed and are in many cases wiser and kinder than 95% of people who are not in prison. Sadly, I have also watched the exit of grace, empathy, mercy and caring from America’s culture in ways that have been just shocking to me. The series, is my way of putting some medicine back into the culture. It is my hope that has viewers watch these heart-wrenching cases, they  will realize the need for reconciliation in their own lives and perhaps take the first step towards healing.

Behind the scenes…

Jason Cohen who is the director of this series, [and a friend of mine], had done a beautiful documentary about a former Neo-Nazi who had come together with one of his victims. We decided to take that theme and apply it in a different way. As a result, we found eight people who had done some really bad things, but who wanted to make amends, and we filmed the conversations with them, and the people that they hurt or a surviving family member. Then we filmed them talking to each other and as you can see, it is very powerful.

His thoughts on restorative justice…

In a perfect world, the series will serve to spark the adoption of restorative justice principals more broadly. There are two approaches to justice: one based on retribution, I.e. An eye for an eye. But there’s another lesser celebrated form called restorative justice, which is focused more on healing the person who got hurt, [as opposed to] harming the person who did the harm. Surprisingly, oftentimes the person who got hurt doesn’t necessarily want the person to spend the rest of their life in prison. But, what they do want, is for the person to change, to apologize, to take responsibility and make some kind of amends, but our court system really doesn’t allow for that. Once a person does wrong, the judges, the DA’s and everyone else jumps in and imposes what they want to impose on that person, rather than asking the victim or survivor what they want. So, it is my hope that restorative justice, will become the new normal. The idea of adding damage to damage to get justice is outdated. I think you need to add healing to damage to get justice. And that doesn’t mean that people don’t go to prison or pay a cost, but it means that we never lose sight that the person who suffered the injury needs to remain at the center of the discussion.

The uncanny connection between the victims and the perpetrators…

In two of the situations, the surviving parents couldn’t get to a forgiving place, and that’s perfectly fine. But in three of the episodes, the surviving loved one actually tried to get the person out of prison. And so, the range of human responses to similar pain was very revealing. I think the most surprising thing was how the victims and survivors really faced the questions that hunted them, for decades. Why did you do this? What were my loved one’s last words? Where you in a gang? Where you paid to do this? What happened? This is the torture that the victim or survivor lives under, and you would think, well, they got a good verdict, the perpetrator went to prison, they should be good, but no! They are still carrying the weight, and the only person who has the key to unlocking their prison is the person who is behind bars. And so, that was a big surprise to me.

On Grace, Forgiveness and his Thoughts on Redemption…

Well, for starters, everybody makes mistakes, and no one can be fully defined by the worst decision they have ever made. We shouldn’t throw people away completely because of a past they can’t change. It’s amazing how sometimes people who have done some of the worst things are actually forced to grow the most. If you actually take them where they are right now, they have more wisdom, compassion, and strength than the people who stayed out of trouble but stayed petty, with all their squabbles at church or in the family. God has put His stamp and genius pin in all of us, and there’s nothing in anybody’s past that can erase God’s presence. My hope is that we can remember that, because we sure can ask for grace and forgiveness for ourselves—but if we want to be more like God we have to be more open to show more grace and forgiveness ourselves.

What’s next for Van Jones?

Well, I’m the CEO of Reform Alliance, a criminal justice alliance that Jay-Z, Meek Mill and about half-a-dozen other heavy hitters have put together to try to make our criminal justice system fairer. I’m going to continue to work with the Reform Alliance. Hopefully, The Redemption Project will get a second season—and, at The Van Show(which I call Sesame Street for grown people), we will continue to have meaningful conversations without the mean stuff that we see so much in cable television. I want to continue to be a bridge. Obviously, I’m a strong democrat and proud of it, and while I believe we have to fight on [the] issues we disagree with, we can’t continue to fight and still have a country. I think Democrats and Republican can agree that our criminal justice system is broken. We have too much addiction, too many medical issues, too many poor kids who don’t have enough support. And so, as much as we fight about everything else, we should be just as passionate about working together where we do agree. I will continue to walk that fine line and hopefully, God will continue to give me the opportunities to do so.

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